Monday, November 27, 2017

Dubai, Part One - Burj Khalifa

We just returned from a long Thanksgiving trip to Dubai, our first big trip out of the country. Dubai -- and Atlantis, specifically -- were at the top of the kids' bucket list since learning we were headed to the Middle East. One of the sights we definitely wanted to check off was a trip to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. 

You had to buy tickets in advance online and pick them up at the ticket counter in the Dubai Mall. We signed up for the 4:00 time slot. The line was long, and it took us about 45 minutes to get to the the observation deck on the 125 floor. Though the elevator ride up took less than a minute!

The tower casts a long shadow late in the day.

We timed our arrival to coincide with the sun setting over the Persian Gulf.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Compassion Week

Evidently, the week before Thanksgiving is Compassion Week at the kids' school. I won't say there hasn't been a lot of communication from the school regarding the activities of Compassion Week, but -- as is often the case -- there is so many emails and flyers from the school, it's hard to figure out which ones are important.

Each grade had to wear a different color t-shirt on Sunday so they could make a rainbow on the school field. We successfully got them in their respective colors, and Elise was largely successful (after Plans A and B fell through) of sending Sam to school with a dish for his Thanksgiving brunch (even though he left it on the kitchen counter the morning of and Elise had to drive to school to bring it to him.

Unbeknownst to us, the next day the kids gathered on the field for a song and dance (photo above). I wasn't aware this was even taking place until I received the email with the attached photo. It made me happy to see Peter and Sam together on the field. Even though they are in different grades and surrounded by their respective friends and peers, they managed to find one another in the crowd and it meant enough for them to hang out together. Maybe it is a coincidence they stood together. Maybe, even, they didn't even see each other, but I like to think at least they are keeping an eye on one another.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Fall of Jerash

On Friday, we decided to drive 45 minutes north of Amman to Jerash, the site of an ancient Roman city, widely considered one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Ancient Roman architecture in the world outside Italy.

The site is incredible, because the entire city has been preserved and you get a real feel for the size and expanse of the city, how the city was laid out, and how people lived. 

The first stop was the ancient hippodrone where chariot races and gladiator contest were held. It was one of the smaller hippodrones in the Roman Empire, but also one of the best preserved. It smelled like a hippodrone, too, with some of the stalls still in use today by local vendors offering horseback rides. The kids said it reminded them of the Cheney Rodeo :)

The kids checking out an old olive oil press. They actually had a decent appreciation for the press after seeing a modern-day press in use on a recent olive harvest trip. 

One of the coolest parts of the city was the Colonnade. It served as an open-air forum at the intersection of the Cardo, the main boulevard running along the axis of the town and roads leading to the Ampitheatre and the Temple of Zeus. 

Here is a picture of Peter running the perimeter of the Colonnade, a precursor of things to come. 

From the Colonnade, we took the Cardo. Along the way, we saw a cathedral and the Nymphaeum, the place where the city's inhabitants got their water. It was a giant stone reservoir which emptied into a smaller basin fed by fountains which trickled from the mouth's of carved lions. 

We walked on the city's original road in which you could still see the grooves made by passing chariots. 

By this time, it was about 12:30. The kids were getting hot, tired, and hungry. After stopping for snack of carrots, cucumbers, and Z bars, we decided since we had almost reached the Temple of Artemis, we would go that far and work our way back. Since you enter the city, at the south gate, marked by Hadrian's arch. The arch was built during an aspirational time when there were plans to expand the city to the south passed the old walls. There was little development, however, between the old walls of the city and the arch, with the notable exception of the hippodrone, so one does have to walk a ways to get from the parking lot and entrance to the Colannade. 

We had plans to stop at the Lebanese House in Jerash afterwards for lunch, the place we had stopped for lunch during our first couple of days in Jordan, on the way back from Ajloun. We didn't make a reservation, so didn't want to be too late, because we knew it would get busier later in the afternoon. 

The Temple of Artemis sits atop several sets of stairways, 108 steps in all (the kids counted them). 

Elise photographing the modern city on the way to the Temple of Artemis. 

At the top of the stairs, I ran with the kids to the base of the Temple of Artemis. I took Clementine's hand as we ran. The ground was even, cluttered with stones and gravel. I recalled an incident a few years ago when we were vacationing in Pondicherry. Elise and I were enjoying cold beers at the hotel. 

It was May in India, incredibly, rudely hot, and we had spent the day sightseeing in the heat. the children played around us. There were uneven pavers on the patio. Water from a nearby fountain ran through a sort of channel beside the patio. Sam chased Clementine, and she fell, cutting her eyelid on the concrete. The gash was deep and required stitches. 

We hailed a tuk-tuk and tried to call the nurse back in Chennai. We made it to a hospital, but after one quick look at the sanitation, I turned around. I wasn't taking my daughter in there. Whatever was lurking there was worse than the cut over her eyelid. 

When we reached the Temple of Artemis, we were greeted by four men, one was selling coffee out of giant tin urns, dropping charcoal briquettes into the top to keep it hot. Two were pedaling various wares, one, an older gentleman, gym-worked biceps in a tight black t-shirt, tight blue jeans with a giant metal belt buckle, sunglasses, salt and pepper hair slicked back, smoking, was just hanging out with the other three. 

Elise and I accepted coffee. With three cardamom pods dropped into each boiling cup, the Turkish coffee was strong, aromatic, and welcome. It wasn't a long hike, but there was definitely a sense of having reached a destination when we arrived at the Temple. There, too, was a sense of peace and calm, of hospitality. I took of my backpack and sipped the coffee. Elise looked at bracelets to buy (Peter showed an affinity for the moonstones, even putting a moonstone necklace in his hair to take on the appearance of a Greek youth of Hermes, perhaps). 

The men told me Peter and Clementine looked like me, but wandered who Sam belonged to. They also told him he looked Middle-Eastern, like a Jordanian boy. They asked me how many camels I would accept for Elise. Their father had many camels, I was told. Of course, I replied I could accept no number of camels for my wife. The older man and I inexplicably exchanged phone numbers. He invited us to his house for dinner, and we took a photo together in front of the temple. Elise tried to get a deal on three bracelets, making use of negotiating skills sharpened on the streets of India. 

And then Peter vanished. 

When he reappeared, it was with tears on his cheeks and distress stretching his face from the clear blue sky to the ground. 

The first few moments after one of your children hurts themselves are the most harrowing. For five to ten seconds you have no idea what is wrong or how severe it might be. Any attempt to ask them where they are hurt only illicits louder howls. There was blood. Pete's eyes went to his knees first, but he was only directing my attention to what he could see. His legs were dusty, but his knees were only scrapped. Elise and I forced him to sit down between us. The vendors gathered around us, concerned, but crowding us when what we may have really needed then was space. I lifted Peter's shirt up, he had scrapped his chest, but, again, nothing major. The blood came from a gash on his chin.

"Peter lift up your head," I told him. 

The cut was not an inch from where he had cut his chin in Falls Church when he slipped in the bath tub. That cut may not have required stitches, but hey, we were in America, why not get stitches when you could? 

I was having trouble telling how big the cut was for the blood when I hard another voice....

"I'm a doctor."

I glanced up. 

A young Jordanian man in t-shirt and hiking pants pressed his head through the crowd of vendors.

It was a doctor. At the Temple of Artemis. It was as though someone had called, "Is there a doctor in the house?" and the call roiled across the tumbling hills. And a doctor miraculously appeared. 

He addressed Peter, "Hey, buddy..."

Peter was hysterical and wouldn't calm down, though by this point, it was apparent he was more startled than actually injured. He had cut his chin pretty bad, but he would survive, though he had yet to understand this fact for himself. He instantly diagnosed the cut would not need stitches and called for plaster (Peter never would get the plaster, and I'm still a little confused to this day what exactly they were going to put on my son's face or where they were going to get plaster at the top of the Temple of Artemis). He asked Peter to grip his hands and raise his arms, but it quickly became apparent--despite those first panicked five to ten seconds when you have no idea what is going on--that Peter was going to be just fine despite the fact Peter had stepped off a pile of rocks and slipped in between two boulders.

We thanked the doctor profusely (he had gone to school in San Diego and recently completed a residency in Pittsburgh)...and his lady friend who had watched him, superhero-like, spring into action. 

We gathered up a battered Peter and started to make our way down from the Temple of Artemis, as our Superman had disappeared, Clark Kent-esque back into the ruins. We wished out vendor friends goodbye, 20 dinars lighter. 

Peter muttered the entire way back down to the car. None of this would have happened, he insisted, if he had just stayed home like he wanted to (it is a Herculean challenge just to get the kids out of the house on a Friday morning). And maybe we are the worst parents in the world, letting Clementine cut her head on a rock in India, and allow Peter to fall from the top of the Temple of Artemis in Jordan, but neither Elise nor I believe in living our lives to be safe. 

There is more good in the world than otherwise. I've learned that if we put our trust in the world, that trust will be rewarded. More often than not, there is a Clark Kent out there somewhere, waiting to swoop in and save us. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons

Children pick up hobbies and interests from a variety of sources. Parents pass their hobbies and interests off to their children. Sometimes, parents look forward to sharing their hobbies or love of something--a favorite movie, band, or book--with their children. Other times, it is a more passive right of passage; children pick up an interest in something simply by being around, accompanying their parents as they go about their daily routine. My dad took us fishing. Other kids' dads work with them in their woodshops, take them hunting, build box-car racers, or share their stamp collections. I ran with a guy in Florida who ran with his high-school age daughter, and you could tell her interest in running had been ingrained in her at a young age by her father.

I was never very handy as a kid or an adult. I brew beer now, and the kids are often around when I do. It will be interesting to see if brewing beer is something they will still be interested in when they are old enough to drink beer. (Hopefully, it is not something they become interested in before they are old enough to drink.) They wash and sanitize bottles for me, stir buckets of wort, and help fill and cap bottles like elves in Santa's workshop were his workshop a brewery.

I spent my childhood drawing and writing stories. Like my kids, I was more cerebral by nature. I played outside, buried Star Wars action figures in the dirt, and climbed trees, pulling the air plants off the oak trees and pitching them like arboreal grenades on the unsuspecting below. But what really engaged me and captured my attention for hours on end were realms of science-fiction and fantasy. I read voraciously. As Sam does now. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, The Dragonriders of Pern, Dune, Elric of Melnibone. I devoured comic books, The Uncanny X-men, New Teen Titans, Swamp Thing, amassing dozens of long boxes filled with hundreds, nay, thousands of issues. I drew my own comic books, creating entire multi-verses of characters and villains. I was into role-playing games, mostly Dungeons & Dragons. I had a bag of dice, graph paper, and die-cast metal miniature figurines of centaurs, minotaurs, griffins, and, of course, dragons. I made up our own adventures and campaigns. I wrote our own monster manuals and spellbooks. Since, Sam has gained a love of reading, and Peter a love of drawing.

Not all the things I loved as a kid translate well to the present day. Fortunately, my favorite cartoon, "Super Friends", did. I bought the kids two "Super Friends" DVDs when we were in India and they watched them almost every day. While others, such as "Space Ghost"? Not so much.

Before we left India, I bought the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game Starter Set with plans to play with the kids during our two-month leave before we moved to Washington, D.C. When I bought it, I was little surprised the game still existed at all. I have since learned the game is enjoying a revival of sorts.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, titled, "The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons", Neima Jahromi describes the revival of the classic game. The name is ubiquitous, but I surmise the true nature of the game escapes many.

Jahomi writes, "When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person “be-in,” the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place."

I thought this juxtaposition between social norms from the late-70's to today especially interesting. Then, three or four friends getting together at someone's house to play a game was socially isolating. Today--when most tweeners and teens spend free time alone in their rooms on their phones--three or four friends getting together at someone's house to play a game is forging a community.

I became discouraged when the box came in the mail and said the game was for kids ages 14+. When I flipped through the rule book, it was way more complicated than I remembered it. There are rules governing everything, and a dice roll decides all. Perhaps, that is why it is so engaging. There is a barrier to entry created by the daunting complexity of the game. The learning curve is so incredibly steep, it keeps out the casual gamer. Knowing how to play D&D is a status in itself.

I kept the box on a high shelf in my closet for months. There it sat, intriguing interest in the kids. They knew I had the game. I told them they weren't old enough to play. The fact that it was forbidden perhaps made it all that much more interesting to them. When we moved into our house in Falls Church, the game moved to the drawer of my bedside table. There it stayed for the entire year and a half of our stay there. When we moved to Jordan, the box came with us. Sometime during the move, Sam and Peter got their hands on it. They started begging me to play. Every weekend would begin with them pleading with me to play D&D.

I was reluctant, because it felt like an impossibly daunting task to distill all those rules and dice rolls into something that kids Sam, Peter, and Clementine's age could digest.

For example, this is how combat works in D&D (paraphased): players have to roll a dice to see who has the initiative (i.e. who goes first), then they have to roll dice to see how their morale is (their morale will subsequently affect the effectiveness in combat), they will move, then either perform a missile attack (shoot an arrow, for instance), cast a spell, or engage in hand-to-hand combat, then they have to roll a dice to see if their attack hits, if it does, a dice is rolled to see how much damage it does modified by the victim's armor class, etc.

But one morning, when Elise was working, I gave in.

"Okay," I said, "We'll play."

The kids couldn't believe their good fortune. After nearly two years of anticipation, we were finally going to play Dungeons & Dragons.

They picked their characters. Sam was a swordsman. Peter was a rogue with a bow and arrow. Clementine was an elfin queen, the sorceress of the group.

I decided the only way we were ever going to be able to play is if I ignored all the rules in the box and made up the rules as we went along. In D&D, there are more than six-sided dice. There are four-sided, ten-sided, even twenty-sided dice. Seven, in all. I read the adventure to them as if I were reading a story to them, only in this story, they would decide how the characters acted. When it came to a point in the story where we needed to see if an action they decided to take was successful or not, we rolled a dice. Any dice. I made it up as we went along. They loved it.

The role of Dungeon Master--the person who guides the other players in the adventure through narrative--is the heaviest lift in the game. Perhaps, slightly more so when your players are all under the age of 10. The game needs to move quickly. One of the biggest challenges I found was to get the kids away from facing every problem by attacking it. If they encountered a group of goblins on a trail, I wanted them to understand that attacking them was only one of many possible actions they could take.

Another--similar--challenge was getting them move off an unsuccessful action and think of trying something else. Last weekend, Sam was trying to climb a 30 foot pile of rocks to enter the next cavern. Peter and Clementine rolled the dice and climbed up. Sam couldn't. After the third attempt, with hungry wolves barking at his heels, I tried to get him to come up with another course of action. It wasn't easy. Role-playing means problem-solving, too.

We've played twice, and they keep asking to play. I think it is good for their imaginations. Not that they are lacking in that area.

Dead to Red Cycle Relay

This past weekend, I got talked into participating on a three-man relay team to cycle from the Dead Sea to the Aqaba on the Red Sea. I was initially very reluctant, as I had not been on a bike other than commuting to and from work since shortly after Sam was born. But I guess what they say is's just like riding a bike. You never forget.

I had to get up at 2:30 in the morning on Friday in order to make it to the start of the race past the south end of the Dead Sea by 5:00. Check-in started at 4:00 a.m. and the race started with the solo riders taking off at 6:00. The distance was 200 km-- of about 120 miles.

We ended up deciding to break it up into 10 mile legs. Since I no longer have a road bike, I had to share a bike with one of my teammates. We had two bikes between the three of us, so when we were transitioning between one bike and the other, the car would drive about four miles ahead of the rider, so the next rider had time to get the bike off the rack and could go as soon as the rider on the road pedaled up.

What I thought would be a long morning, wasn't. I couldn't believe how fast the miles went. Since we were only doing ten mile segments, I rode them hard. When I got off the bike, I crawled into the back seat of the car and spread my legs out over the center console to try and keep my hamstrings from tightening up.

After the first ten miles, my rear was already sore. I rode the second ten miles especially hard, as I tried to bridge a gap to five solo riders riding in a pace line. I was hoping to sit on their rear wheel for a few miles before my leg was up. It was a good thing I caught them, too. I ended up going a little longer than ten that leg, because the support car had to pull over for a pit stop.

The third leg was by far the hardest, due in part to my increasingly sore tooshie and the fact that I rode the second segment as hard as I did. The fourth segment was easier. As we got closer to the Red Sea and the finish, a tail wind picked up and there were more downhills.

All-in-all, we rode the 120 miles in 6 hours 20 minutes. The other car accompanying us brought beer, champagne, chips, and nuts for a tailgate which was unfortunately cut short due to a sandstorm kicked up by the stiff winds.

A few shots from the start of the race. The sun came up quick, however. The bulk of the race was, very much, through the heart of the desert. There were signs warning of drivers of sheep crossings and camels, and it was more-than-slightly surreal to be pushing the bike down the highway, quads resisting, and seeing camels standing watching you go past. 

As you can see, crowds were thin. But the few who did come out to cheer were very enthusiastic!

After spending a few minutes at the finish line, it was time to make the long drive home. It is about four hours from Aqaba to Amman. On a recommendation, I decided to take the Dead Sea highway back as opposed to the Desert Road, because the road is in better condition. It ended up being a beautiful drive that I was not expecting with the sun setting over the Dead Sea on my left, and the pink and purple-tinged cliffs on my right. 

I wound through a couple of small towns. Elise would have wanted to stop and take photographs. One image that sticks out in my mind is that of a small boy and girl playing on a small farm. Their home was a traditional bedouin tent pitched on a cliff on a small plot of land. There was an old Mercedes parked outside the tent, and the boy was giving the girl a piggy-back ride. 

It was Friday afternoon. "Jumea" in Arabic which also means "gathering", because Fridays are the day the family gathers after morning prayers, and families who had driven down to the Dead Sea from Amman and Madaba parked there cars in dust lots overlooking the water. They lit fires. Some cooked on small grills they brought with them. the children played in the dust around them while the parents sat on the hoods of cars or in folding lawn chairs. 

Wadi Field Trip

Elise and I fought over who would get to go on Sam's hiking field trip to the wadi. "Wadi" means "river bed" in Arabic, and some of the best hikes in Jordan are through the wadis to a small (or, sometimes, not so small) waterfall.

Many of the wadi hikes start at the Dead Sea, as many rivers or creeks in Jordan (including the Jordan River) flow through the country and empty into the Dead Sea. Sam had a blast hiking with his friends (and his mother!). He said the hike was hot, but the waterfall at the end was cool and refreshing!